Monday 12 September 2011

London Film Festival 2011: Who Likes A Surprise?

Sandra Hebron is teasing us...
The hottest ticket at the London Film Festival every year is not the opening or closing ceremony. It is not any of the gala screenings, no matter how big the stars due to attend are. Instead, hundreds of festival-goers every year will brave the maddening booking system to get their hands on a highly coveted ticket and watch a film they know nothing about and for a very good reason: it is a Surprise Screening and the title will not be revealed at all until the credits start rolling. And year after year, it has become one of the most endearing traditions of the festival.

So what is the point I hear you say? Why pay for a ticket to watch a film you might completely hate, and might have no desire to see in the first place? But surprises are what cinema is all about! How many times have you been surprised by a film you had zero expectations in and yet turned out to be a brilliant surprise? And the atmosphere at the screening is so fantastic!

It follows a well worn routine: after weeks of speculations, the day finally comes on the last Sunday of the festival. Sandra Hebron, a.k.a. The Boots (I will send a dvd to anybody who finds a picture of her without her trademark boots), and artistic director of the festival, turns up on stage with her infectious enthusiasm and mischievous smile to much applause. She does not reveal what it is, but have a good chat with the audience, asking us all to shout out a few guesses, and still does not tell us what it is. Then the lights go dark, the film starts and the atmosphere becomes electric as we are all still trying to guess with the film company's name coming up, the first acting credits...

While this is indeed a surprise, it is narrowed down by a few criteria. Do not expect a big Hollywood studios premiere, as there is no way it would ever fit in their carefully planned marketing plans. (A couple of years ago, somebody shouted out Avatar!). And indeed it must be tricky to convince any film companies to shun the exposure that the pre-festival advertising would bring. It cannot it be a film that would be too out there, so no subtitles, nothing too violent or controversial, or too obscure.

In fact, your best bet is to look for a film that might already have had its premiere at either Cannes, Venice or Toronto, one that you might have wondered why it was missing in the first place.

The last few years have had some highs and lows. For a couple of years, the festival was on fire, with No Country For Old Men, and especially The Wrestler the following year, with Mickey Rourke making a completely unexpected appearance to a thunderous reception from the audience. But 2009 brought us Capitalism: A Love Story, that was greeted with a stony silence and a few gasps when we realised what it was, as it was a rather baffling choice. And while there was a tremor of excitement with Brighton Rocks last year, it quickly vanished as the film turned out to be rather dull.

So what will it be last year? The speculation has already started on the facebook page of the London Film Festival and will intensify nearer the time. Some have been optimistic and suggested The Woman In Black but I doubt it would have its very first screening here, as bad reputation would destroy it before it has even come out in any country. Others think The Iron Lady is a safe bet but again, I doubt the studio behind it would risk it. Right now I am thinking of two options. Either Twixt By Francis Ford Coppola, as a surprise slot would sit in well with the director's newly found playful side, or The Rum Diaries with Johnny Depp, which was a surprise omission.

Sadly it is Sandra Hebron's last year as the artistic director of the festival, and let's hope she goes with a bang! So beg, steal, borrow for a ticket, and hope for the best! One thing is certain... it will not be Madonna's W.E. that is being shown at the same time at a gala screening! So what are you suggestions? Feel free to leave them in the comment box, I will send a (Surprise) dvd to the first post with the correct prediction (UK only).

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